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Twitter to U.S. Spies: No More Access to Data

Keeping up with the torrential number of tweets that Twitter processes is difficult for any user, and the company has just made that task even harder for the U.S. government. Twitter no longer lets American intelligence agencies access Dataminr, a service that rapidly analyzes real-time public tweets for patterns and breaking news.

Credit: MrMohock/Shutterstock

(Image credit: MrMohock/Shutterstock)

According to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported Twitter's information cutoff last night (May 8), Dataminr has been very useful to both the U.S. intelligence community and to its private-sector customers, which include The Wall Street Journal, other media companies and financial firms.  

The service gave U.S. intelligence services a heads-up about last November's Paris terrorist attacks just after they began, the WSJ said. Dataminr sent notifications to all its clients about March's Brussels terrorist attacks 10 minutes before any news outlet transmitted the story. This kind of open-source intelligence (OSINT) makes Dataminer "an extremely valuable tool," an unnamed U.S. intelligence official told the newspaper.

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The same official told the WSJ that Twitter blocked agencies such as the C.I.A. from accessing Dataminr because the company was concerned about the "optics" of a close relationship with American intelligence agencies.

The Journal did not specify when the cutoff occurred, but it presumably took place in the wake of the high-profile battle between Apple and the FBI over encrypted data on an iPhone used by one of the shooters in last December's terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.

In a statement to USA Today, Twitter declared it "never authorized Dataminr or any third party to sell data to a government or intelligence agency for surveillance purposes." The story does not make clear whether Dataminr sold or simply gave its data to the U.S. intelligence community.

Twitter holds a 5 percent investment stake in Dataminr. The WSJ says Dataminr is the only company that Twitter has authorized to mine and sell data from the entire body of public tweets. However, that doesn't stop anyone from mining data from public tweets for private purposes.

Dataminr apparently began supplying data to American spy agencies after it gained another investor: In-Q-Tel, the U.S. intelligence community's venture-capital arm. According to the WSJ, the working relationship between Dataminr and In-Q-Tel began as a trial-based pilot program, one that Twitter has now told Dataminr it should not continue.

Going forward, U.S. intelligence agencies will likely create their own tools for acquiring Twitter data, or perhaps obtain the information from a third party. Dataminr still has an active, valid contract to supply real-time alerts for world events to the Department of Homeland Security.